Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:38
Become quiet and still. Open your heart to this moment, to this image, to this Scripture, to God. Take your time. What do you see? What do you feel? What do you sense is God’s invitation to you?
This picture does not look like “yes.” We do not see visual proof here of Mary’s acceptance: “let it be with me according to your word.” No gently bowed head or meekly downcast eyes. No hands folded sweetly across her chest as she bows forward in her gesture of humble acceptance. This Mary is full of emotion, and none of those emotions could be characterized as “meek” or “mild.”
Simone Martini was an Italian painter from Siena during the 14th century, and this is his masterpiece. The piece hangs in the third room of the Uffizi gallery in Florence, an enormous gold panel – 10 feet wide by almost 9 feet high – so captivating that it’s hard to look away. From the first glimpse, the Byzantine influence is obvious – there is the brilliant gold of Byzantine iconography; there’s the two-dimensionality, the shallow, shortened, non-realistic space there are the arabesque decorative motifs on the furniture and on Mary’s hem. And yet, even with the recognizable Byzantine styling, this is not a Byzantine piece. It is a departure. There is no similarity between this painting and any other Italian painting of the time. Martini has created something new. And his painting will help birth a new style of art called International Gothic, a bridge between the medieval art that has been and the Renaissance art that has yet to be.
What he does in this painting that stands out from the medieval art of his era is to powerfully evoke emotion. This is not a static scene; it is a story. Originally created as an altarpiece for one of the chapels in the Siena cathedral, it is one of the first altarpieces in the world to show a narrative rather than an icon in the central panel. And it is the very first altarpiece to use the Annunciation as the central motif.
And what Martini shows us about Mary’s story is not humble reflection or simple acceptance. Look at her face, her mouth, her hands, her body. An angel has come to bring good news for the world, and she is in recoil. Most interpreters look at the emotion in this piece and call it “fear.” But there is more here than just that, isn’t there? There is something almost surly in her face, maybe even sassy. She looks aggravated, even … angry?
The angel has come barging into Mary’s life, and she does not look happy about it. Look at the down-turned mouth. Look at those eyes – that is some serious “side-eye”!
She looks unhappy, and it’s hard to blame her. The news she’s receiving is going to disrupt her life. But as uneasy as she is, she stays. She is listening. The words from the angel rise towards her ear, and she is listening.
Mary lived in a world where young women did not make their own life plans. Her world did not care what she wanted and did not grant her agency over her own life. But in God’s story, even a young woman in a patriarchal world has power. Gabriel’s news is an announcement, but it is also an invitation. Mary is given space to accept or reject God’s Big Idea for her life. God’s plan for the world hinges on her consent. She listens to the angel, and then the angel listens to her as she says, “let it be with me according to your word.”
There are annunciations of one sort or another in all our lives. The news we didn’t expect. The plan we didn’t choose. Sometimes the annunciation is an invitation, and it’s clear to us we have a choice whether to allow the new path to unfold in our lives, to allow for something new to be born. But not all annunciations come as invitations. There is a lot that happens in life that we do not get to choose for ourselves. Our plans are interrupted, and we cannot see how things are going to turn out: a terrifying diagnosis, a new love, a failing marriage, a surprise baby, an ailing parent. Things happen that we didn’t choose, and some of them are horrible and some of them are fantastic and all of them are annunciations – they become revelations about who we are and who we are becoming, revelations about who God can be for us if we allow it. They are, as poet Denise Levertov puts it, “moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman.”
“Yes” is not a feeling, it’s a choice. It’s a choice to participate in a plan we didn’t make. It’s a choice to trust that, in the midst of interruptions, disruptions, and disappointments, God of impossible possibilities is still at work. It’s a choice to embrace the life we’ve been given rather than resist it, to embrace the life we’ve been given rather than pine for the one we haven’t. It’s a choice to make space in our lives for something beyond our control to be born, to make room for the “uncontained God.” God is waiting to be born in the mess of your life and mine, always. Always. God will be born in your life and in mine, God will be born in your wildest circumstance, and mine, God will be born, if you consent.
Think about the past year in your life. What has happened that might be considered an “annunciation” – a happening you didn’t plan but that announces itself in your life? Maybe the happening was pure good news to you, or unwelcome bad news, or something in between. How did you respond? How have you seen God working even in the difficult circumstances of your life?
God, help me open my heart, my plans, my life, to the uncontainable, uncontrollable Mystery that is You.